Pope Buoys Environmentalists

By G. Jeffrey MacDonald

For faith-based environmental activists, Pope Francis’s visit to the United States had a major effect even before he set foot on American soil. Now they hope his trip’s influence on their cause will reverberate long after he’s gone.

Just knowing Francis would be in town was enough to launch a series of high-profile events in Washington, D.C., linking faith, moral responsibility, and care for Earth.

Religious leaders, including the Rev. Canon Sally Bingham, will speak to crowds on the National Mall in the hours before Francis addresses Congress on Sept. 24.

Later that night, Washington National Cathedral will host “Coming Together in Faith on Climate,” an evening of songs, poetry and speeches. The goal is “to inspire and connect faith and climate leaders and build momentum for action.”

The pope’s visit to America soon after issuing his encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si, encourages Bingham and her cause as the Diocese of California’s missioner for the environment.

“To have Pope Francis come out and bring this message from such a powerful, moral foundation of the world has given us a tremendous boost,” said Bingham, who is also founder and president of Interfaith Power & Light, which lobbies Congress to act on climate-change initiatives. “It’s very affirming for me that I haven’t wasted the last 15 years of my life talking about this.”

She believes other faith groups have also been moved by the pope’s leadership on the environment. She cites as an example the Islamic Declaration on Global Climate Change, signed by an international group of Muslim leaders in August, just two months after the release of Laudato Si.

As Francis travels the Eastern seaboard, he’ll have a series of colossal stages, including Madison Square Garden and the United Nations, for addressing environmental concerns.

“We know that a big part of his message is going to be about climate change,” said the Rev. Fletcher Harper, executive director of GreenFaith, an interfaith environmental coalition. “What we decided to do in order to amplify that message even further, was to organize a multifaith rally and celebration in support of his message.”

The event — part rally, part worship — will take place about one block from the United Nations on the eve of the pope’s Sept. 25 speech to the U.N.’s General Assembly. The event is expected to draw participants from the Episcopal dioceses of New York and Newark and will include prayer, chanting, singing, and ritual.

“Volunteers in different faith communities around the world are going to be holding short prayer vigils on the same evening as an act of solidarity,” Harper said. “These types of things matter in terms of civil society.”

Organizers hope such events will build momentum for the United Nations Conference on Climate Change, which begins Nov. 30 in Paris. Delegations will discuss whether their nations can commit to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by certain amounts in years ahead.

As part of that momentum-building effort, Bingham encourages congregations to take the Paris Pledge, which commits them to cut their carbon footprints by 50 percent by 2030 and 100 percent by 2050.

On the governmental front, Bingham notes that Congress has 137 Catholics. She hopes many will hear the Holy Father and be moved to action.

“Perhaps they need to look at this from a moral perspective rather than a political one,” Bingham said. “Maybe they can step outside of the party line and do the right thing.”

She hopes preachers in various faith traditions will hear Pope Francis and begin speaking preaching about a moral duty to confront climate change.

“They’ve been afraid to get into the pulpit and talk about something that is seen as a political issue,” Bingham said. “But the pope has given them the opportunity and the responsibility to now speak about it from the pulpit. So I see it as a really big change-maker.”

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